Updated: Sep 11
Grab readers attention.
No. 1 - the all-important first paragraph
Are you submitting a book to an agent? a short story to an editor in a magazine? or entering a competition?
YES? Then your first task must be to make sure the first paragraph fills them with so much enthusiasm, they have to read on. It's one of the essential creative writing ingredients.
Some say it is 'priority one', although others may argue that the title is equally important and - even more so - the front cover design. Whilst both may be true in terms of readers picking your book out of a line-up (on a web page or in a bookshop or library), I would go even further and say - at least in my case - the book blurb and the author's bio plays a big part in the 'purchase'.
Anyway, imagine those have played their part well and your book is open at the first page. What makes the reader (or agent, or editor) read past the first page?
Here are a few suggestions.
* Pose 'a question'
Place doubt and curiosity in the reader's mind, with the promise that you will take them on a journey to answer that question, or resolve that issue.
Of course, it has to be a journey the reader wants to go on - so an interesting character, location, exciting event, or an emotional situation central to the story needs to be introduced swiftly and effectively.
(Here's where context needs to be obvious in the cover design, title or blurb.)
Note: All this 'action' has to be contained within the first paragraph, so you may need several drafts before you pack all this 'juice' into just a few lines. (See our advice on building 're-writes' into your creative writing discipline.)
* Reader's curiosity into 'what happens next' is the key.
By this I also mean that, say, if you have introduced an interesting character, supply the reader with enough 'need' to discover, understand, and get to know the character in the pages that follow.
Note: This reminds me of a book - a bestseller - I began reading and (I will never understand how I managed this) I was half way through the novel and I suddenly realized 'I don't care what happens to this person'. So I abandoned the book and gave it to a charity shop.
So - caring, sharing, and empathy with the lead character - even liking or disliking - are important. But in as few words as possible when it comes to the first paragraph.
* Location and setting add relevance
Connect to your readers with historically time-based, geographical or based in a particular situation (e.g. war zone, country village, in the school or office, sports background etc) will attract certain readers in varying degrees.
Your first paragraph needs to 'win over' the reader - delivering what they were expecting based on whatever led them to pick up the book in the first place. Ensure the reader is confident that you know what you are talking about.
They have to 'live it' with you alongside your main character.
* Setting the right tone for the genre
Thrillers need short, sharp sentences; whilst introducing the reader to a peaceful village scene (with a church in the background and a game of cricket in progress under its shadow) may need longer sentences (but not too long) and more description (but not too much) to get the reader in the right mood.
* Too much DETAIL in the first paragraph
can overwhelm the reader... such as too many characters. Remember, you only have one paragraph - the first one - to grab - and hold - the reader's attention. The action taking pace needs to be simple and concise, the number of people involved as few as possible (too many names confuse), with not too much of the plot revealed in the one session. Again, leave the reader with a sense of anticipation, wanting to know more - but with a promise that all will be revealed as the story unfolds.
Initially, remain focused on a small segment of what will ensue later.
Phew! That is so much to take in. BUT DON'T PANIC! You don't have to apply all the *starred* items above in the one paragraph.
Remember, these are pointers, suggestions - not instructions - so use what works for you and focus on that.
For instance, if (like me) you get 'interested' in a single character - then it may be enough to build a profile the reader wants to hear more about and really get to know.
Or, if you have a crime thriller, if the 'mystery and suspense' comes over strongly enough in the first paragraph, that may be all you need to get people to read on to find 'whodunnit'.
But I've left one feature out.
DIALOGUE - an essential creative writing ingredient
Skillfully written, this can be just as powerful as description. If you haven't already tried it as an opener, give it a go. You may also find my article on Dialogue helpful - here. I hope so.
Here's some more advice.
You may have read an earlier article I wrote about the time I introduced a new beginning to a novel after I had finished it. (Or thought I had.) Yes, it was a whole new chapter but, of course, this also meant a new 'first paragraph'.
It's totally allowed! Make your own rules. Write and re-write several drafts of a new beginning/paragraph until it feels right. Test them on friends and family.
Make it the last thing you do before sending off your MS to an agent, for self-publishing, or to a magazine editor or entering a competition if it's a short story.
It's that important.